Study: Gulf spill's social costs may linger for years

Still cleaning up the oil spill in Grand Isle, Louisiana
Still cleaning up the oil spill in Grand Isle, Louisiana Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times / MCT

WASHINGTON — A team that's spent two decades studying psychological distress among residents who lived near the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska has found striking similarities among those affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill.

On the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and fouled the Gulf of Mexico, the research team warned that the lingering psychological effects of the disaster could be expected to continue over the next decade.

"Technological disasters have very unique consequences for communities, families and people," said Steve Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. "It's not like a natural disaster. Technological disasters cause long-term corrosive communities, whereas natural disasters result in therapeutic communities."

The team has been studying the long-term social costs of the Exxon spill, including increased rates of bankruptcies, substance abuse, divorce and suicides. They picked Bayou La Batre, Ala., for comparison, because like Cordova, Alaska, it's a small community heavily dependent on commercial fishing.

Picou, along with Liesel Ritchie of the University of Colorado Boulder's Natural Hazards Center and Duane Gill of Oklahoma State University, surveyed more than 400 people in south Mobile County, Ala.

Most people were worried about their health or that of their family, the economic loss they've suffered and potential future economic losses because of the spill, the team found. Of those surveyed, more than a fifth were in severe psychological distress. Another fourth were in the moderate distress range — findings that were similar to Cordova following the Exxon Valdez spill.

"Several people told us: 'We know what to do after a hurricane. We know how to pick ourselves up and move on. How to plan, how to build better,'" Gill said. "'This oil spill? We don't know. There's so many uncertainties associated with it.'"

The anniversary of the spill has caused many to reflect in Cordova, where a state-ordered oil spill response drill was under way Wednesday afternoon. For Osa Schultz, the discussion about the safety of Gulf Coast seafood is especially eerie. It's one they struggled with in Alaska, which lost market share because of the taint of the spill — if not the actual harm to fisheries.

"I can't help but think about what the people in the Gulf are doing, the small businesses and the residents, and reflect on the many years that we've fought to even come back up to even. Or try to anyway," said Schultz, who continues to run a fishing boat with her husband.

The researchers hope that what they've learned in Cordova since 1989 will aid those in the Gulf of Mexico. They've taken a so-called "peer listening" program they used on a much smaller scale in Alaska to the Gulf, where they've trained more than 600 people in the concept.

The program teaches people in the community to help steer their friends, family and co-workers to professional help or resources. People are trained to listen for the root causes of problems, he said. If someone is drinking too much, for example, is it because he's worried about losing his home? If so, there's often a way to gently point him in the direction of a program that helps avoid foreclosure, he said.

The researchers also teach peer listeners what not to say. They never should say that they know how someone feels, because they don't, Picou said. They also don't tell people to "get over it" or to "move on," he said. And clergy who train as peer listeners are advised not to tell people that "God will take care of it." Instead, the researchers suggest that clergy offer to pray with someone who's in distress.

Although the program was designed to be used in future disasters in Alaska, it's portable, Picou said.

"It clearly demonstrates that this was an important lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez," Picou said, one that is "very applicable" in the Gulf.

Gill warned that a great source of future anxiety for victims of the Deepwater Horizon spill could come from the uncertainty of unresolved litigation. In Alaska, the lawsuit to determine punitive damages went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided the case 19 years after the spill.


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